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Audio problems at the BBC - TV drama audiences can't understand what the actors are saying

A post by David Mellor
Friday April 25, 2014
The BBC's recent broadcast of Jamaica Inn has drawn comments and complaints. "The actors are mumbling", "The sound track is faulty", "Like listening through mud". So what has really gone wrong, and who is to blame?
Audio problems at the BBC - TV drama audiences can't understand what the actors are saying

It's in all of the news media in the UK. The BBC's dramatisation of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, broadcast on their flagship channel BBC One, was supposed to delight an audience of millions up and down the country.

But instead all it got was complaints about the sound, more than two thousand of them. This search link will give you all the background you need...

Complaints about TV sound are commonplace. The usual problem is that viewers can't hear the dialogue or narration above the background music. There is actually a good reason for this - if one's hearing becomes damaged through over-exposure to loud sound over long periods, then the ability to distinguish speech from other sounds diminishes. This could perhaps be dismissed as a problem that affects only a minority, but it can be argued that if a TV broadcaster isn't pleasing its audience then it isn't doing its job - particularly a broadcaster that is funded by a licence fee imposed on all television viewers.

But this time it wasn't only people who are hard of hearing who were complaining. The moans and groans were coming from all directions. I thought it was probably just a lot of hot air about little or nothing. But I took the trouble to ferret out a video of the original broadcast. And...

There is most definitely a problem with the sound. A big one.

I've made a comparison video that demonstrates the problem. I've alternated clips from the original broadcast version with the version that the BBC has improved and is currently available on the BBC iPlayer. Take a listen...

The differences may not be as apparent on YouTube, but a cleaner audio only version is available here...

Going back to the complaints, there were two general strands. One was that the dialogue was too quiet and that the sound people had messed up somehow. The other was that the actors were mumbling.

From these examples, it is clear that the dialogue, and overall audio, is too quiet. I put both the audio tracks into Pro Tools and it took a 9 decibel boost to bring the level of the broadcast version subjectively up to the level of the iPlayer version, which is a lot. Of course, TV viewers can increase their volume level, but they shouldn't have to. The film industry copes with levels extremely well and my opinion is that TV broadcasters should aim for a similar standard.

You may also notice that the sound effects in the iPlayer version have a wider stereo image, which would help the dialogue stand out more in the center.

Even when the audio is boosted however, it is still quite difficult to make out some of the dialogue. The male character is indeed mostly mumbling.

In my view, there is definitely a technical issue with the sound, which the actors' delivery makes worse. It would be interesting to find out exactly where the problem happened, and why it wasn't picked up before broadcast, or even during broadcast. I suspect however that we will never definitively find out. But we can hope for better TV sound in future.. Surely?

A post by David Mellor
Friday April 25, 2014
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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